I have picked up a variety of jobs this summer to make ends meet; currently I am live-trapping black-footed ferrets in central Wyoming, as part of the recovery plan for this species, the rarest mammal in North America. Closely related to weasels, black-footed ferrets are small carnivores that feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs.
This species was declared extinct in 1979 after the last known individual died. In 1981, a pet dog on a private ranch in western Wyoming brought home a dead ferret, and the hunt was on for an extant population. Researchers found a small population near the town of Meeteetse. They brought several into captivity and began a successful breeding program, and re-introduction efforts have been underway since.
All the money involved, all the agencies, all the meetings - but how are ferrets, or any species for that matter, actually studied?
The field season, in which the wild populations are actually trapped, examined, tagged, and released, starts at dusk in a desolate Wyoming basin at 7PM.
At 6500 ft, August nights drop into the 40s. A crew of 13 people sort out spotlights, batteries, radios, GPS units, backpacks, and burrow traps. I spend the next 12 hours alone on foot, criss-crossing prairie dog towns, swinging my spotlight, looking for a pair of tiny green ferret eyes to peek out from a burrow. On the way, I see ferruginous hawks, mountain plovers, mice, long-tailed weasels, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, swift foxes, coyotes, and pronghorn (during the day, this area looks like a rocky wasteland, littered with ankle-high sagebrush; hard to believe it sustains so much wildlife).
When I see a ferret, I set a trap and start hoping. If I catch one, I put it into a transfer tube and gingerly carry it back to the pickup, and drive it across the basin to the processing trailer. There, it will be anesthetized, examined, and tagged with an implanted microchip. After it recovers, I release it back at the trap site. Then I pick up my pack and return to walking. At 1AM I return to the truck for coffee and granola bars. I pull my traps and finish up as the sun rises.